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English Teaching Info

Changing Course in Midstream: My Experience Teaching ESL
to 12 Year Olds in Seville, Spain
by Richard Bienvenu

Every Tuesday and Thursday for a semester and a half I would wake up with a knot in my stomach, the tranquility of the early Spanish morning absconded by the grip of fear.

I hated these days.

For a whole semester and a half I had had a room full of 12 year old students in Seville, Spain who had been sent to the small American college after their school day to learn English from real Americans

The class had mostly turned into an hour and a half of me yelling and threatening and slamming my book on the desk in an attempt to get them to sit down and shut up. Forget trying to teach them anything.

At 12 years old kids seem to have a biological need for independence. This can sometimes make them difficult to handle. That was the problem, I thought, their age. What I didn't discover until much later was that the problem was me.

I didn't realize that the way the class was playing out had been my doing. I had actually put everything in motion from the very beginning when on the first day of class I determined that I would put the fear of God, or at least the fear of Richard in them so they would behave.

How did I do this?

By ranting and raving, several times throwing the blackboard eraser at the door.

Ranting in English I knew full well they couldn't understand me. But I figured they would get the gist of what I was conveying which was "don't mess with me or there'll be hell to pay!"

I wanted to show them I was a real "hard ass." Of course, the problem with this is that I am not a hard ass. Actually, what I was being was a real ass for the simple reason I was afraid. You see I didn't know how to handle kids.

I had remembered some of the tactics the Christian Brothers used on us in elementary and high school. But what I was remembering were isolated incidents of eraser throwing and ranting. I don't recall now any teacher ever starting a new class the way I had.

Of course I was not aware of this at the time.

Quiet Teacher

Hilda was the head of the English program. Originally from Puerto Rico she had had many years under her belt of teaching in various schools in the U.S. At one time she had been a principal.

She told me at the beginning of my teaching stint with the kids to not be hesitant to send a kid down to her if they were misbehaving. Usually just threatening them with "going to see Hilda" was enough.

Hilda was a small frail looking woman who smoked too much but had a way about her that commanded respect especially from the children who attended the school.

She spoke quietly and was never obviously overt in disciplining a kid. I saw how they would sit sheepishly at her desk while she gently but firmly talked to them.

So in class when I would mention Hilda's name, because although they couldn't understand much else of what I said they did understand "Hilda", their eyes would get big and in fear and awe would gasp "Hilda!" as if I was going send them in front of a firing squad.

This actually kind of confused me. How was it they could be so afraid of being sent to Hilda when I never ever witnessed her raising her voice or hitting them or being in any way mean to them. What I saw coming from Hilda was utmost respect for these kids.

And they in turn respected her.

This I can only surmise in hindsight. I didn't know any of this at the time, hadn't formulated any of this into kind of sequence of thoughts that could have me stand back and regard any of this objectively.

All I knew was that I had a bunch of bad kids I couldn't control and my Tuesdays and Thursdays were miserable.


I was getting tired of spending two entire days out of the week with a knot in my stomach. So in desperation one afternoon before class I sat across from Hilda at her desk and told her my tale of woe.

I told her how I had no discipline in class, how I wasn't able to teach a lesson because the kids were always cutting up. I also told her how I woke up twice a week filled with dread and apprehension.

She regarded me quietly for a moment. Then with a knowing smile on her face she said, "I usually don't like to tell my teachers how to teach but since you came to me I can at least pass on to you some of the benefit of my experience."

She went on to tell me how when she used to teach kids they had such respect for her that she could leave the classroom to run an errand in the middle of the period, give them some work in the meantime and when she returned would find the class quiet and in order each student diligently doing their assignment.

She never had discipline problems.

I was amazed. "How did you accomplish that?" I asked.

"First of all," she said, " I never ever raised my voice in class." Of course yelling at the kids was what I had been doing every day of class for a semester and a half.

"When you raise your voice you raise the level of noise in the classroom and the kids will raise their voices to match yours." Which was exactly what had been happening.

"If you are upset and you really want them to hear you, lower your voice. Walk up to the kid you want to talk to, look in his eye and very quietly give him a piece of your mind. Kids are very smart.

"Once they see they've upset you and you start to lose control they will egg you on to try to upset you more. And they know when you are scared and take advantage of that. They know what buttons to push."

Of course she was right. I had been scared that first day and tried to overcome it by acting like a hard ass to frighten them. Although there was a language barrier they had seen right through me.

"The next thing to remember is this: never make a threat you aren't willing to carry out. If you tell a kid the next time he cuts up you are going to send him to Hilda and you don't do it then they know you don't follow through on what you say and they'll take advantage of you.

"When you make a threat make sure it's one you can actually carry out. You know if you're angry and you tell a kid if he doesn't behave you'll throw him out the window, he knows you won't do that so your threat has no meaning.

"But if you threaten to send him down to Hilda that's a threat you can carry out, and when you keep your word and do as you say he'll have more respect for you."

She stopped talking and sat there looking at me with that knowing smile. If only I had known all this I wouldn't have spent the last seven months in misery.

After a moment of silence I said, "Do you think if I changed now I could turn the class around?"

"Mm. I don't know," she said. "They've gotten pretty use to the way you are now. It might be too late to turn it around. It's worth a try but don't get too disappointed if it doesn't work."

I sat there nodding not saying anything. But I had some hope that I could do something to take me out of this misery. So as I walked upstairs to class I was determined to be different, to do something differently.

After all, I had nothing to lose.

Trial by Fire

As I entered class all the students were sitting at their desk in their usual state of agitation. Quietly I walked to the lectern, put my book down and took role. Then just as quietly I told them to open their books to the next lesson.

One of the boys, Manuel, the biggest trouble-maker who sat in the front row, started cutting up, laughing and speaking out of turn. I quietly walked up to him, stood directly in front of him and almost in a whisper said, "If you do that one more time I'm sending you down to Hilda."

"Que! Que dice!? (what, what did you say?)", he said.

"I said, if you do that one more time I am gong to send you down to Hilda."

"Que diiiiceeee?" he exclaimed, this time turning to his brother who sat next to him. His brother got the gist of what I had said and translated for him.

"Ohhh, Hilda!" responded the trouble maker, his eyes big.

I quietly turned and went back to the lectern to continue the lesson. After a little while Manuel started cutting up again. So I again quietly walked up to him, stood right before him, looked him straight in the eye and in an almost whisper said, "Go see Hilda."

Sheepishly he slowly got out of his chair and left the room.

I went back to the lectern and continued the lesson and heard not a peep out of the class for the rest of the period.

When class had ended and the kids were filing out the brother of Manuel came up to me and in his best English asked, "Teacher, why are you so... sad... today?" Other students had gathered waiting for an answer.

I just kind of shrugged and said, "No. No, I'm not sad."

They left the class somewhat perplexed and I felt something had shifted.

I was just as surprised myself. Had I really turned a semester and a half of misery around in just one class? As subsequent classes demonstrated I had.

I had determined I was going live by the simple rules Hilda taught me and the rest of the semester was not only free of misery but I actually now looked forward to being with these kids.

We started playing word games in class which before could not have happened because of the constant disruption. I could actually appreciate them for who they were and they could appreciate me.

Mutual respect which had been absent for a whole semester and a half was now present and flourishing. Yipee! I had done it and we both benefitted.

Strange Power

And what was this strange power Hilda held over the kids? Why did they so dread being sent to her when I never once saw her raise her voice at them?

It had to do with respect. The kids so respected her, held her in such high regard that it was shameful and embarrassing to them to do anything that would displease her.

And why did they have such respect for her?

Because she respected and had a high regard for them. It was a two way street.

This was wonderfully eye-opening for me and influenced from then on how I would relate to all children in family, friends and academic situations.

As soon as I started treating my students as intelligent beings with the respect they deserved they in turn did the same to me. The transformation was immediate and profound.

The last day of school there was a big party for all the classes. I brought my guitar and sang for everyone. I remember my students telling the other school kids proudly, "That's my teacher, that's my teacher!"

The most vocal was the trouble- maker Manuel, the one I had sent to Hilda. (For the rest of the semester I never had to send him or anyone down to Hilda ever again, by the way.)

As they were leaving I knew this was the last time I would ever see them. Several of them came up to me and shook my hand and thanked me. Manuel and his brother walked up and told me in their broken English that they had liked the class.

Shaking my hand Manuel smiled and said, "I am glad that you were our teacher." Surprised, I chuckled and said, "Thank you."

That kind of acknowledgement simply was not going to happen had I not confided in Hilda, taken her advice and changed course in midstream.

This had been one of the most powerful lessons of my life. To this day it's impact hasn't left me. Through a change in viewpoint and a shift in behavior I had not only improved my life but the life of my students.

And I got my Tuesdays and Thursdays back.

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